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Philippe Donche-Gay*: Digital-Transformation in the Marine Industry

Mr. Philippe Donche-Gay, President, Marine & Offshore, Bureau Veritas gave a very interesting interview to and NAFS magazine which have as follows:


NAFS — Bureau Veritas is a company with a long history, but what new tools have you developed for the digital age, notably in the marine industry?
P. D-G. — Digital transformation has given us access to elements we have already seen in many other sectors. It ensures availability, at a cost that is much lower than in the past and still falling. It provides processing power and storage capacity, notably in the cloud, and software that offers much higher performance, notably in terms of processing or simulation, so we can manage and make sense of the vast amount of information provided by “big data”. Finally, the Internet, a phenomenon that is not new by any means but is expanding to a much broader scale from its first phase, when it connected people, now enables objects to communicate, leading to greater access to data and many new applications accessible via collaborative platforms.
None of that is fundamentally new, but the marine industry has seized on these new technologies and the resulting transformations much later than other sectors.
NAFS — What are the reasons for this late discovery?
P. D-G. — One reason is the weak bandwidth aboard ships, which limits the volume of data that ships can transmit. Today, ships connect to the Internet by satellite, at speeds that obviously cannot match those offered by fiber-optic networks on the ground. But the field is advancing rapidly, with bandwidth expected to increase by a factor of ten between 2015 and 2025. Though until now they have remained relatively isolated, ships will now start to access higher Internet speeds. In addition, the existence of 3G and 4G mobile networks have already provided sufficient solutions for ships operating near coastlines.
Another factor behind the relatively slow progress in this area is the fragmentation of the marine transport sector. Very few marine companies are large enough to house an IT division capable of supporting all the various aspects of digital transformation.
Finally, there has traditionally been a lack of standardization in the construction of ships and their equipment: very often, ship owners prefer to use their own specific design.


Photo: Launched by Bureau Veritas in April 2017, Veristar AIM 3D provides asset management dashboards for individual ships, rigs or facilities - or for entire fleets. This will enable smarter decisions based on better visibility of actual asset condition and performance. This will help reduce costs during operations and provide return of experience data to better inform design and construction, so helping address the twin challenges of reducing both CAPEX and OPEX.

NAFS — What are the economic effects of digital transformation?
P. D-G. — First of all, digital technology can help optimize or reduce the costs of shipbuilding. When designing a container ship, cruise ship or any large ship in general, having access to powerful design and simulation tools is crucial, as they make it possible to produce a virtual prototype of the ship and test its performance through simulations. For example, hydrodynamic simulations help test different shapes and select the ones that offer the best energy performance for the ship’s actual operational profile. Software of this type is already used in the aeronautics and automotive industries. But our field is more complex due to the much higher number of calculations (sea states, speed, cargo, etc.) and the variety of physical phenomenon to model (resistance, cavitation, waves, impact, structural integrity). All that requires considerable processing power and specific simulation tools. Bureau Veritas develops its own tools and has access to innovative technologies through its acquisition of HydrOcean, a company specializing in digital simulations. Bureau Veritas has also developed numerous partnerships in the academic world, notably with the École Centrale de Nantes, which provides access to its servers with over six thousand processing cores. It is important for French shipbuilding to have access to this type of technology, as it helps produce ships that deliver higher performance, improved safety and lower costs.
Digital technology also comes into play in terms of lowering the operating costs of a commissioned ship. That includes the energy aspect I mentioned earlier, of course, as well as another significant source of spending: the maintenance and detention costs required when carrying out necessary periodic regulatory inspections.
Also in the marine industry, we are seeing a gradual roll-out of technologies that collect information directly from equipment, through sensors. Collecting these data ensures continuous surveillance and helps to establish preventive or even predicative maintenance plans. As long as ship maintenance is carried out in accordance with industry standards, that not only makes it possible to extend equipment life, but also to space out preventive inspection or replacement periods for materials.
This is a major trend that has already swept through aviation: manufacturers monitor every single engine turbine in real time. But for the reasons we already discussed, this system arrived much later in the marine industry. It is starting to take off today, notably for engines, but we can assume that eventually it will apply to a wide range of essential equipment and the structure of ships.
For example, we led a joint research program with a major container ship operator. We placed tension and acceleration sensors on the hull of a certain number of their container ships for a period of four years. Based on the results, we determined how frequently, depending on sea states, internal tensions would reach our prescribed limit. By coupling those results with the hydrodynamic calculations we mentioned earlier, we were able to improve our guidelines for ship dimensioning and our process for verifying the integrity of container handling systems on ship decks.

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Photo: Bureau Veritas surveyors and clients are digitally enabled, supported by mobile applications

NAFS — So far we have been talking about changes aboard ships. But could digitalization also help create a sort of control tower to monitor who is doing what and where?
P. D-G. — Certainly. All the technical data generated by the ship are collected – today at regular intervals, tomorrow in real time – with two effects: the first is real-time fleet monitoring, as it already exists, and the second is statistical treatment of these data to establish more efficient maintenance and operation plans. You have brought up an important point: the more we standardize the fleet, the more we can learn from aggregating these data.
NAFS — Today’s commercial ships, especially in the cruise market, are absolutely massive. They have become small cities on water, with 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members. At a time when terror attacks are on the rise, surveillance has become a particularly pressing concern for these ships. Will digitalization improve security for passengers and crew?
P. D-G. — These floating hotels are gradually receiving all the same safety and security mechanisms typically found in other environments. Every cruise company has greatly expanded the controls they implement to ensure the security of individuals. Their approaches are similar to those carried out in public spaces like airports and train stations. They have also taken measures to manage IT risk, notably by segregating the various networks: the passenger network, the network for data transfer between crew and the marine company, the network for transmitting operational data concerning the ship’s operation, etc. It is important to insulate these networks from each other: so that, if anyone, maliciously or not, imports a virus to the passenger network, it will not infect the rest of the equipment.

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Photo: Philippe Donche-Gay: 'One very positive aspect of digital technology is that it can help navigating crews focus on their job by freeing them up from administrative issues.'

NAFS — As digitalization takes off in the marine industry, we have begun to see new marine professions emerge. Are efforts underway to train today’s sailors and officers so that they become “digital sailors” in the future?
P. D-G. — These professions will certainly evolve. One day, we may even develop a fully autonomous ship – a concept that is still theoretical in my opinion, though it has generated a lot of interest: could we eventually do without a crew? The immediate answer is no: we cannot do without human oversight.
However, the trend of reducing onboard staff will continue, because crews will benefit from much more assistance in the form of digital tools. That will notably apply when navigating through critical or heavily trafficked areas.
New technologies will also bring improvements for navigating crew that will facilitate this evolution. On the administrative level, we have seen the dematerialization of reports, as well as the various regulatory certificates each ship must obtain and keep up-to-date. One very positive aspect of digital technology is that it can help navigating crews focus on their job by freeing them up from administrative issues.
New skills will also emerge, particularly in terms of digital control techniques. In classification societies, we already see the need for these techniques.
NAFS — Do you expect digital transformation to accelerate in the marine industry?
P. D-G. — Without a doubt, and it will lead to the renewal of a large portion of today’s fleet. Ships built today are pre-fitted with sensors and pre-cabled industrial networks, similar to the networks used in factories. That is how transformation will take place. It may take up to a decade or so until a significant proportion of ships are fitted with this equipment.
NAFS — So far we have focused on the ship side. What about ports?
P. D-G. — Port activities began their digital transformation long ago, with a push for automation and a transformation of logistics and documentation.
In a more general sense, digitalization now makes it possible to combine navigation and reception into the same value chain. Container ships are leading the way in this area. Containers are already equipped with RFID chips and sensors to provide highly advanced traceability and detailed identification upon arrival at the port. That means the entire logistics chain is now undergoing transformation.
NAFS — Bureau Veritas is simultaneously a marine industry player, observer and witness. What are your priorities in terms of digitalization?
P. D-G. — The first transformation for the marine industry players with whom we collaborate the most – ship owners and shipyards – is to take advantage of tools that are already available and shift into three-dimensional mode. The fundamentals of our business have stayed nearly the same since its inception: we certify that ship plans comply with the latest naval construction regulations and then verify the compliance of the ship after construction. We are currently working to shift the model towards what already exists in aeronautics: to no longer certify plans, but instead follow a three-dimensional model, from which cross-sections can be extracted as needed. This approach offers greater efficiency, both during construction and throughout the ship’s life cycle. The reason for that is because the three-dimensional model evolves with the ship. We are working today to support this shift towards three-dimensional models, which in some ways recalls the first wave of the Internet, when paper certificates gave way to digital certificates accessible via a web portal.
The second transformation consists in using these new technologies to refine our inspection methods. We are not quite there yet, but the possibility of sending a drone into ship compartments to perform detailed inspections, notably of welding, is not far off. That advance would enable us to improve inspections and maybe even reduce their cost.
Finally, we are focusing all our attention on bolstering marine security. We have access to more and more software to manage a ship’s critical equipment. We can certify the equipment, but what about the software that manages it? In the past, this software played a minor role, but now it is becoming crucial. Take the example of cable layers or offshore service vessels. They feature dynamic positioning equipment allowing them to maintain a fixed position regardless of the sea state. If this equipment fails, the ship could drift and potentially collide with an oil platform, with all the potential damage that implies.
Software must be reliable, since it operates across every level. Along with other players in the industry, we have developed new methods to verify that these elements are produced in compliance with a certain number of existing standards.
This is an important change for us. Since 1828, security has remained the top goal of our industry. We need to factor digital technology into the equation in order to detect new points of vulnerability in ships. And that applies independently of any malicious attack: it can relate simply to a malfunction.

NAFS — For those reasons, you argue in favor of accelerating the emergence of a “digital marine industry” …
P. D-G. — The general recommendation is that we have no choice: we must follow the digitalization trend and the wider marine industry will only benefit from this shift. Like any transformation, this one is complicated to manage. But, as always, the companies that move fastest stand to gain the most. Once the financial crisis has passed, companies that mange the transformation today will have a measure of advantage over the competition.

*President, Marine & Offshore, Bureau Veritas


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